Gaming Foibles – Boss Fights


Name me a good boss fight. Go on. Do it now. What’s that, Glados from Portal? Okay, fair take. Shadow of the Colossus you say? Okay I’ll give you that one too. Actually, I’ll admit. There are SOME good boss fights, but really not many. I can count them on one hand, which is a shame, as gaming is absolutely rife with the buggers.

The main problem is the predictability of it all, the cut and paste scenario sees you circlestrafing something large until it falls over and you’re allowed back into the game proper. It’s there to provide a climax to a level, a big struggle that results in a greater sense of success. Repetitive attacks incrementally lowering a screenwide health bar over the course of half an hour doesn’t represent struggle. The feeling that results from defeating this monster isn’t pleasure, it’s relief. Thank goodness that’s over, I can get on with the game.

Glados is an excellent fight because it doesn’t even slightly adhere to these cliches. Firstly, Glados is your guide through the game, a character that treads the line between tutor and antagonist. Glados has a real and direct relationship with the player from the beginning, and the final confrontation is a natural resolution to the story. It’s also a puzzle fight. You use the skills that you’ve been perfecting throughout the game to turn Glados’s attacks agains her. Glados’ monologue plays in the background, her comments veering between naive curiosity, death threats and panic, it’s brilliant drama which is completely engaging. No health bars, no insta-kill attacks or dodge rolls.

There’s only one good place for the typical giganto-boss, and that’s in the MMO. In that context a boss is a great excuse for you to roll in with a bunch of friends and beat the flaming snot out of a dragon. The social experience overcomes the dull predictability of the setup, and with loot and XP gains the rewards are greater. Just please leave them out of our single player games. I don’t ever want to have that Elizabeth Green Time Square fight from Prototype ever again. Not ever.


Ludo out.


12 Responses to “Gaming Foibles – Boss Fights”

  1. 1 smirkdirk
    July 30, 2009 at 7:50 pm

    Too true! After enjoying the hell out of RE5 on the Xbox360, I’ve been attempting to enjoy “Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles” on the Wii as of late, and every single level climaxes with a massive boss fight that after multiple attempts can take as long as 45 minutes each. Ridiculous! In many cases I can’t help but feel that boss fights are a way to stretch a 3 or 4 hour game into 6 or 7 hours.

  2. July 31, 2009 at 3:57 am

    I broadly agree, but even in light of the above comment, I still think the Resident Evil games might have some examples of good bosses tucked away there. Maybe I’m re-interpreting this all fangly, but those sharks count, right? From the first one? As I recall, you have to run away from them, you get trapped in a chamber underwater and it starts smashing at the window, and you have to do a timed puzzle to escape. That’s a pretty epic challenge with some solid puzzle stuff, all centered around this single foe – a collosal shark.

    Course, there are a million daft bosses up in there. How do you feel about Zelda? I really enjoy the 3-hit kind of bosses, although I wouldn’t mind, you know… 1-hit bosses. Yeah, per limb etc. Stab it’s eye. Pin it’s tail. Chop it’s balls. That sort of sequence.

    Never played SotC, is it good?

    (brace for impact!)

  3. 3 Chris
    July 31, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    I broadly disagree, but it depends heavily on the style of game.

    In a game which relies on immersion, an obviously shoehorned boss can destroy the suspension of disbelief. But in some genres, it is the climax that the level has been leading up to – like the crash at the end of a musical crescendo. You don’t have a musical crescendo unless it’s going somewhere, and likewise, the Megaman robots, Bowser, the Gym Leaders or that bastard at the end of Double Dragon with a friggin’ machine gun are the result of a buildup of tension, which makes beating the all the more cathartic.

    The point here, though, is that there are two kinds of bosses that work. Bosses that don’t feel shoehorned (Gym Leaders, Shadow of the Colossus, Lavos, etc.) are the first category. If you didn’t fight Lavos, Chrono Trigger would have been entirely pointless. In fact, this is a fairly relevant category for RPGs (although they tend to overdo it with too many superfluous bosses at times), where the story generally revolves around finding and stopping some kind of evil arch-nemesis.

    The second type is games that are more a test of skill than an immersive story. Say what you like about Mario or Mega Man, nobody is going to claim that they have great stories. They are purely a skill test. As such, adding a boss doesn’t kill the immersion – if you can buy floating platforms over lava just because, then bosses are simply ramping up the test to another level.

    Many of the great moments in gaming have come from bosses, but as games become more story-driven and immersive, the boss fight can feel increasingly out-of-place. However, they do have worth as the result of a buildup of “dramatic” tension, and certainly bookend a story quite nicely.

  4. 4 Chris
    July 31, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    As an aside, a boss doesn’t have to be a fight either.

    Whether it be a final puzzle or a particularly nasty platforming sequence, the concept of a “boss” is, in it’s very essence, the gatekeeper of the end of some predefined segment of the game. Something that is, ideally, harder than what has come before.

    It’s all about the buildup of tension. “Bosses” (in their most broad possible definition) help the emotional pacing of a game. If you just sort of end, there’s no real “release”, and all of the buildup feels like it was going nowhere. I’ve played games like this, and they just feel like a damp squib. “Oh. That’s it?”

    The classic example from literature is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It’s a good enough book, but it just sort of ends without really going anywhere. It’s incredibly unsatisfying, because, in my opinion, the pacing is quite off. If you take out bosses, you have to be very careful to ensure that the tension and emotions are paced in some manner, or you run the risk of a similar occurence.

  5. 5 Ludo
    July 31, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    Oh yeah I totally forgot about the giant shark in Resident Evil! good call, that was ace.

    I guess the thing that irks me is that interesting and tense boss fights are in the minority, and I’d rather more time was spent on the general gameplay than on adding unoriginal big monster showdowns. Games shouldn’t have to feel that they need to provide an experience that climaxes to a point and resolves with a big scrap. Take Call of Duty 4, it’s short but the shooting is brilliantly tuned, and each level is so different that it maintains a high level of intensity without needing to resort to a big boss enemy.

    In ‘broadest possible definition’ that Chris offers we’re probably talking more about set peices: Sections that temporarily mix up the gameplay to provide variation and crux moments, as Chris mentions these are vital when pacing a game, but these days they can’t be big health bar timesinks anymore.

    Jaz, I did enjoy the classic Zelda bosses when I played them a few years ago, but I find them kind of a chore now, and I think it’s because my expectations of games have changed. (Half Life 2:Ep 2 spoilers coming up) The set piece at the end of HL2:Ep2 sees you fighting an onslaught of Striders as they march on the base. It’s kind of a boss fight scenario, you’ve got big enemies and you have to use special weapons to take them down, but it’s all in a big open area with outposts full of supplies. You set the chokepoints and strategy yourself. The hit weakpoint A to reveal actual weakpoint B kind of Zelda fight doesn’t hold the same excitement anymore.

    (SotC is good, but odd. It’s basically a fairly contrived sequence of boss fights with nothing else in between except a huge, beautiful but wierdly completely empty world. The Colossi themselves are so huge that each one is a puzzle/platforming level in itself. The sheer sense of scale of the creatures really makes it.)

  6. 6 Dante
    July 31, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    Did you just suggest 20,000 leagues under the sea should end in a boss fight?

    Actually I quite like this, more classical literature should try that, Othello should end with him fighting a 100 foot tall Mecha-Iago with lasers for eyes.

  7. 7 Chris
    August 1, 2009 at 2:07 am

    Well, more a peak-tension point.

    But I’d take a boss fight, as well. Captain Nemo vs a Giant Squid or something.

    They could even have a crossover where Nemo and Ahab team up to take down Moby Dick.

  8. 8 smirkdirk
    August 1, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    Shadow of the C is exceptional. The entire point of the game is, I suppose, boss fights. However, each colossus is a puzzle of sorts, finding out how to get on top of it to its weakpoints. Not merely point, shoot, stab…

    As far as the “weirdly, empty world” mentioned above. Truly it is. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game quite as melancholy as Shadow… Honestly, a palpable, loneliness eventually overtakes you as you play it. Of course videogames can evoke emotions like tension, drama, and silliness – but the feeling and mood that one gets spending a couple of hours with C of S is unlike any other I’ve ever experienced with a videogame. Truly in the ‘are videogames art?’ debate, Shadow could be exhibit A.

  9. 9 Emma
    November 26, 2009 at 7:55 am

    I thought the boss fights in MGS3 were pretty awesome. Especially the last one — a great culmination to the story, a creative fight, beautiful setting. Actually most Metal Gear bosses are pretty cool.

  10. 10 Ludo
    November 26, 2009 at 4:55 pm

    I’m not a big fan of the MGS series but I really liked the third one. And that last boss fight does have a remarkable setting. MGS3 was mostly very creative with its boss fights as well, especially facing off against the ageing sniper ‘The End’.

  11. 11 gitano
    December 7, 2009 at 5:47 pm

    shadow of the colossus is best game of the world…. eu so do brasil…

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